The Mary Stewart Affair
My mother loved Mary Stewart. In the summer of 1967 when the word “bell bottom” was first introduced into the dictionary and the Bee Gees were struggling new artists, my mom was a sophomore in high school in the small town of Malad, Idaho. Few events from the outside world penetrated this little valley at the foot of the Samaria Hills, but that summer my mother discovered a library shelf full of mystery novels by a British woman named Mary Stewart. She spent that summer immersing herself in Stewart’s cleverly crafted tales of smart, elegant young women stumbling unwittingly into European intrigue and romance.
Growing up I heard the name Mary Stewart and titles such as Madam, Will You Talk?, Airs Above the Ground, and Touch Not the Cat referred to in tones of hushed reverence. Stewart books proudly adorned the family bookcases sandwiched in between the likes of Dickens and Shakespeare. All those lovely volumes my mother painstakingly collected over the years from used bookshops across the nation appeared soporific and unappealing to me as a child, with their delicate dust jackets and their uneven pages like the sheets of some forgotten manuscript.
More often than not I opted for Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden when it came to summer reading material, with the result that I came to my own inevitable Mary Stewart summer late in the game. Home for the summer, triumphant from my freshman year of college, I emerged from a week of recuperation in desperate need of a good book. Or twelve. As my eager fingers ran along the spines of good old Nancy and Trixie, they passed over Dickens and Shakespeare to stop on the creased spine of a small, worn paperback copy of Madam, Will You Talk? Why not? I asked myself. Now had to be as good a time as any to find out what all those hushed tones meant. So I settled down on the floor of my bedroom, book balanced against bent knees, and read that first unforgettable line, “The whole affair began so very quietly.”
May, June, and July passed quietly and the affair continued seamlessly as I fell completely under the spell of a mystery writer who read like Jane Austen meets 1950’s debutante
. I found myself frequently laughing over sophisticated women in “affairs of yellow chiffon” and always delighted by the way Stewart wove obscure literary references into her chapter headings and witty dialogue. More than once I glanced up to see Mom smiling at me through the doorway, not even bothering to hide her pleasure that her only daughter couldn’t put down the same books that had captivated her as a girl thirty years ago. Fifteen books and one summer later I closed the final book with a reluctance and a reverence only to be matched by my mother’s. That first Mary Stewart summer never seems dimmed by the passage of time or the pages of countless other books. For there have been many since. London
Prompted by my Bibliophile Birthday post from last week, I've decided to do a Mary Stewart giveaway! This is partially a selfish endeavor so that then I'll have an additional person to talk to about these books. And if you win it and read it and you love it, come back and tell me. And I'll tell you which one to read next! I figured I ought to give you a little more background on my love for Mary Stewart's books, so I'm sharing an essay I wrote a few years ago for the Readerville journal. It explains it the best, I think.
So. All you have to do is leave a comment to be entered in the giveaway. Tell me about your favorite book-as-gift giving experience. Which author did your mom turn you on to? Do you have a favorite Stewart? It's very hard for me to pick my favorite. I can whittle it down to my top three or four, but from there it often depends on the time of year or what kind of day I've had. So I'm going to give away a copy of her first book, the first one I read, and the one I honestly think everyone should start with--Madam, Will You Talk? You can read a brief summary and excerpt here. I'd leave this open a week but I'm going out of town on Thursday so you have until this Wednesday the 6th at midnight, when a random commenter will be chosen. Make sure to leave me a way to contact you. I'm all excited!
What a beautiful eassay, Angie, and what a lovely memory to share with your mother.ReplyDelete
I come from a family of book-aholics. My mother was a librarian for over thirty years and my stepfather was a History teacher. Books were as necessary as clothing and food in our house.
When I was very very little--four or so--we lived far away from the schools we attended. Driving through morning rush hour traffic with five kids under ten in the back seat would have been enough to make anyone insane, but my mother found a way to hypnotize us into quiet: she narrated books to us.
Our favorite book was by a French author, Paul Féval. The novel, a tale of duels, swash buckling, heroism and self sacrifice, was Henri de Lagardêre (Le Bossu). To this day, close to four decades later, I remember her words and our awe--and of course now I own three copies of the novel.
From there it was Dumas, Dickens, Alcott, Salgari, Verne, Christie and so many others I've lost count. And out of five siblings, there are now five life long readers.
Angie, I was blessed that my Mom was a reader and we would share books (most of them romances with the HEA).ReplyDelete
As you were writing of Nancy Drew, I remember my 4th grade summer with my Mom. We lived about 20 miles from the grocery store and once a week Mom would drive us into town that summer. We would attend an early morning daily Mass, she would go to the grocery store and I would walk to the public library where I would devour all the Nancy Drew stories. Mom would come find me after shopping and spend a little time with me wandering through the library. She really encouraged my love of reading and I think this made me a much more successful person in my adult career.
My Mom died when I was 25 (18 years ago)so having these memories sparked by your blog is wanderful.
I would love to receive a Mary Stewart book. Thanks for the contest and the memories.
Thanks for sharing your beautiful memory of your mother. My mother is not a reader, so unfortunately I don't have a story to share in return. But my favorite book as a gift was when my friend Becca was migrating to Australia and she gave me TUESDAYS WITH MORRIE because she received it as a gift from one of her colleagues and wanted to share it with me. I was really touched.
I think you captured the essence of Mary Stewart wonderfully in your essay--"mystery writer who read like Jane Austen meets 1950’s debutante London."ReplyDelete
"Nine Coaches Waiting" was the first Stewart book I read and it captivated me. "Touch Not the Cat" is slightly different than most of her mysteries but I think it's my favorite...the romance and chemistry of the two leads is so palpable.
ooo, I've never had the pleasure of reading a Mary Stewart novel, but I am definitely intrigued by your post! Sounds delicious! Count me in!ReplyDelete
What a wonderful essay, Angie. Please don't add me to the giveaway, however. Nine Coaches Waiting was the first Mary Stewart book I read and I've purchased all of them except The Moonspinners. I've only read The Gabriel Hounds and Wildfire at Midnight since, but I'm looking forward to reading the others especially Touch Not the Cat and Madam, Will You Talk?ReplyDelete
You don't have to enter me.....nepotism and all he he, but all my favorite book memories as a child have to do with your mom too.....my own fabulous mother, for the most part, likes to read for info and not for pure pleasure.....that is why she always deferred to the experts in your household. As long as I can remember there was always a list of books on the bulletin board written in your mom's hand writing. I need to delve deeper into the Mary Stewart library since I've only read the Merlin books, but she had me from the start. Anyway, love the essay and any shout out that Malad ID gets is fabulous in my book. laters.ReplyDelete
I too have great difficulty choosing a favorite Stewart, but Madam, Will You Talk? is certainly right up there -- and I seem to be decidedly bereft of a copy right now for some reason.ReplyDelete
I also have a deep and possibly disturbing love for The Gabriel Hounds and the gorgeous blond(e) cousins-who-aren't-really-cousins who are also lifelong friends who realize they're in love in the middle of a crisis involving large amounts of water. And fire. And melting-candle metaphors.
ALady, I can't believe she did it all from memory! What a marvelous way to hear those stories. And I have never heard of Henri de Lagardêre (Le Bossu). I'll have to look it up. Thank you so much for sharing that!ReplyDelete
Ruth, I'm so glad and how fun that summer must have been. As kids, my dad and his sister used to ride their bikes to the library and check out 5 Nancy Drews and 5 Hardy Boys and read them, exchange, read, return, and repeat. Good times.
Llehn, aren't those the best unexpected gifts when people are moved to share something they've loved and enjoyed in the hopes of spreading the pleasure? They often end up meaning so much because of the spontaneity and thoughtfulness.
Rachel, NINE COACHES WAITING is in my top 3 for sure. It may be the one I've read the most number of times. Not sure. And you're absolutely right about TOUCH NOT THE CAT. The two main characters' connection is so awesome.
Camie, ooh, I think you would really like them! Delicious is the word.
LauraJ, it's so awesome that you have them all sitting there waiting for you. That is a relieving feeling. lol. At least for me. You really can't go wrong. THIS ROUGH MAGIC is very lovely, though. :)
Liz, how did I not know that? That piece of paper on your bulletin board really made me smile. Also, you must read more Stewart! When will you be back this summer? Yay for Malad!
RJ, that is the single best description of THE GABRIEL HOUNDS I have ever read. DH read it and said, "Wow, that really makes you want to read it!"
My mother always was - and to many degrees still is - a very active person. She always said that if she sat down, she would fall asleep, so she was never much of a reader. All the same, as soon as she saw that I was becoming one, she encouraged me all the way to the library and back. So even if she didn't give me an example to follow, she always gave me her support. Now that she is older, she is starting to slow down and is reading a lot more. Whenever she comes to visit now, she comes with a book and it is lovely to be able to share books and recommendations with her.ReplyDelete
As for Mary Stewart, I don't know wich is my favourite. I think Airs Above the Ground was my first, and as such will always hold a special place. I also love Nine Coaches Waiting and The Ivy Tree. However, I don't have Madam, Will You Talk, so I would love to be in your giveaway. However, I'm in New Zealand, so I'll totally understand if you don't want to post that far. I know it is expensive.
Kerry, I am so impressed with the parents who actively encourage and facilitate reading in their children when they are not huge readers themselves. They are clearly in tune and invested in their child's happiness. What a gift.ReplyDelete
AIRS ABOVE THE GROUND is my mother's favorite! And I agree, THE IVY TREE is wonderful. I love the first line and the way the whole thing comes full circle but not in the way you expected!
And you're certainly entered in the contest. Since Stewart's heroines bravely roamed the globe I'm certainly not going to limit this one to one continent. :)
Aw Angie. I love that story about your mom. It's a wonderful story and beautifully told.ReplyDelete
The best book-as-a-gift I've ever given was when I bought "Ender's Game" for Zack. I thought it was right up his alley and I was right. But it irked me a little that he figured out the ending well before he got to the end. *Hmph*
As for the book give-away, I feel too unworthy to be a participant. I have never been a mystery or a Jane Austen fan, but your description of it makes me want to be one. So don't count me in on the give-away, but I will make it a point to get that book!
I love your story, Angie, as well as all those posted in the comments! I can't believe I only discovered Mary Stewart last year (I owe Jennie and her fansite a massive thanks!). My favourite has to be THE IVY TREE, though NINE COACHES WAITING is definitely up there as well.ReplyDelete
I already have MADAM so don't include me in your giveaway!
Carrie, Aaron always has it all figured out way before I do. Actually, I don't think I really invest much time trying to figure it out before hand. I'm too absorbed in what is happening Right Now in the story. lol. Also, no one is unworthy of Stewart. I think you'd like MADAM, WILL YOU TALK? It's delightful. And set in Provence! :)ReplyDelete
Li, I love Jennie's site! It makes me so happy someone is devoting a whole website and blog to this fabulous author. THE IVY TREE and NINE COACHES WAITING seem to be really popular across the board with readers. One that has worn surprisingly well for me upon several re-readings is MY BROTHER MICHAEL. I'm really partial to the ones set in Greece. But, man, I love Michael in that book...
Your essay on your love of Mary Stewart's writing is wonderfully written, Angie. It's a beautiful testament to the special bond that was wrought between you and your mother over your mutual love of reading this author's works. That's really special.ReplyDelete
Sadly, I don't have a similar book experience to share from my youth, but I hope I am creating them with my own children. We have some books that are special to us because we have either read them aloud together or read the same books on our own, but have discussed them and shared them nonetheless.
Besides the ever so popular Harry Potter books that brought our family (and so many others) together over the pages of a book, there is a book that always comes to mind as "our" book. The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamillo. I read it, then my oldest read it, then I read it aloud to my youngest. My oldest always seemed to be within earshot when I was reading it aloud, I'm sure just so she could hear the story again. It's a very moving story with lessons about life, love, loss and hope. I think that book will become a favorite of theirs to read to their own children someday.
Christine, that's wonderful to hear. I love the image of older daughter hovering on the edges to be near the magic of a great story again. I have not read that one yet, either. Sounds lovely.ReplyDelete
My mother loves to read, and some of my favorite books are ones that I first encountered on her shelves. My favorite Mary Stewart book is "The Crystal Cave"; my mother's copy is very well-worn but still intact, and serves as a good argument in favor of investing in hard cover editions.ReplyDelete
I love your site-- it's helped me find plenty of new reading material.
You can contact me at hguanavak(at)hotmail(dot)com.
Yay! Lovely essay. My mother got me hooked on Mary Stewart too, thank goodness!ReplyDelete
Don't enter me into your giveaway, as I just counted and I have 4 copies of Madam already. ;) But I am going to link over here from the Mary Stewart blog.
Yay for sharing the Mary Stewart love. :)
I don't need to be added either as I own at least one copy. I LOVE Mary Stewart and am always happy to find others who feel the same! Moonspinners is my favorite with This Rough Magic and Nine Coaches Waiting following closely behind!ReplyDelete
AJ - your desc. of The Gabriel Hounds is fantastic!
I give books all the time as gifts --- My family is big into reading!ReplyDelete
I always get my dad a book along with his gift. The one he liked the most was Odd Thomas by Dean Koontz.
These look great! Please enter me!
I haven't read any Mary Stewart yet, but your blog keeps introducing me to new great stuff so I'd love to try one.ReplyDelete
People don't tend to buy me books, unless they're ones I've specifically asked for. My mom doesn't feel confident choosing something new for me. A friend says I have all the books already. My husband tends to get video games we can play together or fun things I wouldn't usually buy for myself (like the complete Puppetmaster DVD box set). He did get me a heaping ton of Terry Pratchett books once, but that doesn't exactly count because I heard the words "London" and "business trip" and begged for a few (back then a lot of them weren't available in the US).
My favorite book stories are usually recommendation ones. I went through this phase where I let my oldest brother pick everything I read. It started sometime in 3rd grade and went on for awhile. I had worked my way through every book of interest in both our little rural library and the school one. I was kind of over kids books, and YA in those days wasn't nearly as good and varied as it is now.
So I started having my brother pick my books. I think it was fun for him at first, and it was pretty easy too because every couple of days all he had to do was hand me another stack of Edgar Rice Burroughs or old D&D novels. He lent me his Lord of the Rings books and told me that he kind of envied me for being able to read it for the first time. I think that was when I really recognized how important books were to people.
After awhile he got bored of it, and started handing me whatever he had just finished. So I went through Lovecraft, Conan, and those first Dragonlance books. Looking back, some of it was probably pretty age-inappropriate. But my mom had a very hands-off "at least she's reading" approach to that sort of thing.
Then I think he got annoyed at constantly being bugged for books, and he started picking hard things to get me to leave him alone. The one that I remember most was this history, translated from Latin, about Hannibal's war with Rome. That one took me at least a week and a half. I had to look up a lot of words. And when I told him I'd finished, he thought I was lying. He practically quizzed me on it.
Finally he just told me that I had to start picking my own books again.
I'm too late to win any prizes, but I love, love, love Mary Stewart. I worked as a shelver at the public library one summer and saw Nine Coaches Waiting on the shelf several times but never thought to pick it up. I don't even remember now what finally made me read it, but when I did I was hooked and couldn't stop until I'd collected and read all of her books. I don't know if I could possibly choose a favorite -- I love them all!ReplyDelete
I hope whoever wins Madam Will You Talk appreciates it!
Rachel, thank you! She definitely wrote my favorite Arthurian books. Hands down.ReplyDelete
Jennie, thanks for linking here! Four copies of MADAM? Awesome.
Somebirds (love the name), THE MOONSPINNERS is one that's grown on me so much since I first read it. I love the beginning with the white egret.
Dottie, I've heard nothing but good about ODD THOMAS. I've never read any Koontz so I really ought to pick it up.
Donna, that is an epic story about your brother recommending books to you over the years. I loved it. Sounds like you were voracious from an early age. :)
main-hoon-emily, I love those stories of how many times you pass a book and almost pick it up but never quite and then you finally do and just fall in love. I'm glad you did! NINE COACHES WAITING casts a spell over me.
how fun to read all these reminiscences of enjoying Mary Stewart. I read and re-read all her books as a young girl, and was completely inspired by them to travel around the world, although I don't think I was ever as neatly groomed as all her heroines seemed to be. I followed the trail of THE MOONSPINNERS and spent two months in Crete when I was 19, then went to Delphi for MY BROTHER MICHAEL, etc. She really opened up the world to a girl from Virginia.ReplyDelete
Decades later, living in Madagascar, but still before internet, I was hit with an overwhelming desire to re-read her works and was so delighted to find an old copy of MADAM. Great since books in English were rare. Now, living in Tanzania, with internet, I can download ebooks, but they aren't the same as the wonderful old copies we had at our beach cottage. It's been wonderful to see the covers again on Jennie's blog, which brought me to you.
Although I have to say, when re-reading MOONSPINNERS recently, my sister and I just howled with laughter at the thought that Mark was a dark and dangerous-looking man!!! he was 20-something!
oh well. Thanks for sharing all your experiences with Dame Stewart, who was such a huge influence on my life. I don't think my life would have been half as interesting as it has been without her showing me the way!